This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.
This feels like a central passage of scripture for our discipleship journey, for all of us who have responded to the call of Christ can affirm, ‘of this Gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me’, in order that we too may be bringers of Good News to our communities, to those, who up until now have not received the Good News of Christ.
It’s a passage which in just a few sentences is jam-packed with pointers to the life of discipleship and the tools of faith required to equip us for the journey. Grace, Mystery, Spirit, Sharers, Boundless, Wisdom, Purpose, Confidence, Faith.
Scan the passage again. What words jump out for you?
In my ministry serving as a Pioneer in South Manchester, engaging with people not in our churches, these are words I need to be conscious of on a daily basis. In regularly encountering those the church has often seen as needing the Good News, my views of ministry and mission have been radically challenged and changed.
At the risk of caricaturing slightly many people I have spoken with over the last two years view the church as judging, and don’t often associate Christianity with grace. People believe the Church has set answers, and wouldn’t look to us for an exploration of mystery. People will say they are spiritual, but not see the Church as Spirit led. Many people are happy to share, but see the church as only wanting to tell. The view of God I find in others is often boundless, yet the God of the Church seems much smaller to people. There is wisdom in the world in abundance, but people perceive the Church as a group who behaves as if it self evidently has superior ethics or morals. People are searching for a purpose in their lives, but see Christianity as offering a narrow and prescriptive plan. And yet, despite all this, (which could seem like a rather negative list), people are happy to engage with exploring faith together.
So, what if we allow today’s passage to be equally challenging for us today, as I suspect it was for many of its first hearers when Paul began blurring the boundaries between Jew and Gentile? What, instead of reinforcing the divide between those we regard as ‘us’ and those we deem to be ‘other’, we read Paul’s words to mean everyone is included in the life of God, we are all together fellow heirs of God’s grace and members of the same body, now! Not dependent on any confession or conformity the Church has invented.
This way of sitting with the passage seems to me to fit well with our theology of Mission, but not always our ecclesiology, that is, we understand our call to go out into the world, but are still wedded to a model which invites ‘others’ to come in to ours. God is already out in the world, alive and active in people’s lives. Our task is to find out where, and join in. We can best do that when we purposely remove any barriers which define ‘us’ against, ‘other’, which sees Church and Community as separate, and an attitude to evangelism which, however subtlety, betrays the belief that ‘we’ have something ‘they’ lack.
I believe Christ is calling Disciples to a new journey of mutual discovery, of inviting people to follow Christ by our example of authentic lives and actions, not by convincing those with questions with sound reason and words. I believe Christ is inviting us to join in with what God’s Spirit is already doing, going ahead of us, to engage with the truths people already know, for which our tradition has a name.
And from Disciples, will we allow ourselves to become Apostles, going out, with vulnerability and openness, not expecting ‘others’ to come to ‘us’?
God of mystery and infinite possibilities,
we let all that we have found challenging sit with us as we pray.
May we be gracious, as you are gracious.
May we be comfortable with questions, and not rush to answers.
May we be led by your Spirit, and not by our busyness.
May we be sharers of faith, not teachers of doctrine.
May we be boundless in love, not endless in judgement.
May we seek your wisdom, not assume that it’s already ours.
May we be guided by your purposes, not confined to our plans.
May our confidence be in you, and our faith always open.
The Rev’d Mike Walsh is a Pioneer Minister working in the cafe and bar culture of Chorlton, south Manchester, predominately amongst non church people in the 20s to 40s age range.